Breast Cancer Awareness Month: How 'pink' campaigns distort the reality of the disease


October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means for 31 days, the United States will be bathed in pink. 

Athletes will don pink cleats, gloves and sweatbands. Entire sports stadiums will go pink. There will be pink buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, pink Yoplait yogurt lids promising you can "Save lids to save lives," pink maximum strength pepper spray and even this pink Navy fighter jet CNN calls breast cancer's "powerful new ally."

In 2012, Guardian columnist S.E. Smith referred to this phenomenon as "pinkification." Others term it "pink fatigue." But almost all agree that so-called "breast cancer awareness" has become primarily about brands and merchandise.

"Breast cancer has become a product, not just a disease," Smith wrote.

Paul Sancya/AP

Today, breast cancer awareness is more than a cause — it's an industry. And it's a financially dubious one to boot. 

In Smith's piece for the Guardian, the writer called the breast cancer awareness industry a "multibillion dollar juggernaut," referencing a Southern California Public Radio story about how even breast cancer nonprofit charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure is complicit in the capitalist scheme. 

The charity has drawn skepticism in recent years — with Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan singling it out as "a bloated Cancer Awareness McDonald's that offers more swag and socialization opportunities than cure."

The charity was behind KFC's 2010 "Buckets for the Cure" initiative, which donated 50 cents from each pink bucket of chicken to the Komen organization. Though the campaign had reportedly raised $2 million in its first week, according to ABC News, Susan G. Komen for the Cure faced backlash for promoting the consumption of a food that's been linked to cancer.

"This will keep them [Komen] in business for years," Breast Cancer Action executive director Barbara Brenner told CNN at the time. "They talk about a cure, but this partnership will create more breast cancer. And Komen knows this."

Since the organization's founding in 1982, the charity reports investing $2.6 billion in research, outreach and advocacy in over 60 countries. In the 2010 financial year — the same year as KFC's breast cancer-fighting campaign — Susan G. Komen for a Cure reported managing over 500 grants amounting to roughly $270 million and providing 1,500 breast cancer patients with financial assistance. 

"We have been involved in every major advance in breast cancer research since 1982, helping to extend the lives of thousands of women and men and improving the quality of life for millions," the charity wrote in its 2010 report. 

Butch Dill/AP

Many breast cancer campaigns can be misleading. Think Before You Pink, a Breast Cancer Action initiative responding to "the growing concern about the number of pink ribbon products on the market," cautions against not just the Komen organization, but any charity or company selling breast cancer awareness products. While many companies will make sizable contributions to Komen for the Cure, they often come in the form of a one-time flat contribution. 

Many companies place caps on their donations, which means they'll claim 100% of the profits from the breast cancer awareness merchandise after reaching their goal, Think Before You Pink warns. And many more retailers will ask customers to donate money to "breast cancer research" without specifying which organization will receive the funds.

Currently, Reebok is sponsoring the Avon 39 Walk to End Breast Cancer, selling an entire line of pink workout gear on its site. Customers, though, should note the fine print: The retailer will donate a minimum of $300,000 and a maximum of $750,000 to the cause, regardless of how many pink ribbon items are sold. 

Rex C. Curry/AP

Then there's the cutesy pink branding, which rubs some cancer survivors, like Apryl Allen, the wrong way. Allen was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2013, had surgery to remove the cancer three months later and is now cancer-free. But just because Allen's story is one of triumph doesn't mean she's ready to see the disease through rose-colored glasses.

"After my surgery I had to wait another two or three weeks to get the results in, which would tell me whether I was going to live or die, what the next year of my life would look like, all of that," Allen, who documented her experience in a new book A Tango with Cancer, said in a phone interview. 

"Thankfully, I knew what the situation was by the time October hit," she said, explaining that she was able to keep both her breasts. "Awareness month isn't very sensitive to women who have a double mastectomy and don't get to keep their breasts."

And indeed, each October, we are hit with a deluge of cheeky, irreverent slogans like "Save the tatas" or "Save the hooters." A site called Flirty Diva Tees sells T-shirts declaring "Boobs like these are worth fighting for" and "Big or small, save them all!" Worse, still, are those preaching "Squeeze a boob, save a life" or "Save second base" — mantras that objectify breasts and make it sound like the woman attached to them isn't worth saving in her own right. 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"'Save the tatas'? I don't refer to my breasts that way," Allen said. "'Hooters'? Don't even get me started. I'm all for promoting preventative care by doing your monthly exam, having your mammograms done, all of that. It's wonderful people are encouraging it, but this is taking it a step too far."

"It's degrading to women."

Allen emphasized that fundraising campaigns and media attention can be crucial in raising awareness about breast cancer. But the message should never erase the real experiences of breast cancer patients and survivors.

"It's a very real disease we are all facing," said Allen. "You rarely hear stories about what it's like mentally and physically to be faced with something like this. I think people need to look at it through the eyes of those going through it rather than just seeing the pink."